Earlier this year I read Jeff VanderMeer’s book Annihilation in preparation for seeing Alex Garland's big screen adaptation. From almost the moment the movie began it was clear that the cinematic version was going to be very different from the original novel; in fact, the film opens with a scene that directly contradicts the novel’s ending.
I had a lot of thoughts about Garland's movie - which is a two hour long effects heavy story about an all-female team of scientists who are sent to explore an abandoned wilderness that's been coated in a mysterious 'shimmer' that is possibly of alien origin - while I was watching it. Many of those thoughts were about it’s purely filmic aspects like its cinematography or its special effects or its acting.
However, my main focus was the way that the movie was both similar and dissimilar to its source material. It was the number one issue that fascinated me, both because I’m generally interested in how different storytellers will tell the same story in different ways, but also because I eventually came to conclude that VanderMeer and Garland somehow managed to get at the same themes through very different methods - a conclusion that I thought was pretty interesting.
Because the truth is that while the two versions are very different plot wise – the bulk of VanderMeer’s book takes place in an otherworldly location that the movie never even visits; the characters that die meet very different deaths in each; the main character and her husband have marital problems in both, but for internal reasons in the book and external reasons in the movie; etc. – both Annihilations are still mostly interested in exploring humankind’s intrinsic urge to self-sabotage.
The lightbulb moment where it all clicked for me came late in the movie after I managed to connect it to No Country For Old Men. I wasn’t thinking about NCFOM because it is also an unsparing and semi-cryptic movie where almost no one gets out alive – I was thinking about it because that movie is a fairly exact adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s book, but with one exception: it is a lot more concrete.
McCarthy’s writing is so sparse that he barely ever uses adjectives or provides descriptions. His characters are faceless placeholders, vague cogs that can be pushed around by the larger forces that motivate the plot. But of course when the Coen brothers filmed their best picture winner the characters had faces – they had to, because they were played by actors. The Coens replicated the cosmic-doom feeling of McCarthy’s text on-screen, but they also imbued it with more humanity because they told their version using actual human beings as opposed to letters on a page.
Similarly, I think the main difference between Annihilation the book and Annihilation the movie is not that an undead bear plays a much larger role in the movie – it’s that Garland’s version is much more tactile than VanderMeer’s book. The book is told in first person by an introspective narrator and she struggles to find the words to describe a lot of the Lovecraftian cosmic-horror sights she sees. In contrast, the movie has no narrator at all, and obviously it doesn’t have to describe the horrific sights its characters see because we can see them, too. Both versions of Annihilation have their hard-to-parse aspects, but Garland’s adaptation can’t lean on the book's “I can’t describe what I just saw because its too mind blowing” shtick so much – it actually has to offer up something that’s actually mind blowing.
Once you get past the fact that one version of this story is abstract and the other is more palpable… you see that the two iterations really are very similar. It doesn’t matter whether the botanist is forced to confront her inner demons in a flower-covered temple or an abandoned military base; all that matters is that she has to confront them. The fact that the two teams of explorers go to different destinations on their suicide mission matters less than the fact that in both tellings the characters have volunteered for a suicide mission in the first place.
All that said, I’m not completely convinced that either version of Annihilation actually has a lot of insight into the questions that the narrative is raising. (This is particularly true of VandeerMeer’s book, which I thought failed to deliver upon it’s potential.) But again, this is an area where a comparison to No Country For Old Men might be apt, because I’m also not sold on the idea that McCarthy is a nihilist poet; I tend to think that his inscrutable pronouncements are more pretentious than they are profound.
But whether or not these books / movies have the answers I still respect them because all four stories function as evocative mood poems that transport their audience to a bleak (and possibly transformative) place. Sometimes profound works can’t actually provide any good answers to the questions they raise, but if they engage their audience in the right way the reader / viewer can be encouraged to seek the answers on their own, and any work of art that can prompt that sort of mental pilgrimage has a lot of inherent worth in my book. I can’t completely forgive these stories of inexplicable horrors for the narrative shortcuts they take, but I also can’t deny that they all made me somewhat contemplative – which is a rare thing for a story to do in these thoughtless overly-media-saturated times.